At a Shabbat service led by two b’nei mitzvah students in my congregation, I was lulled into a meditative frame of mind. As if following a rigid script, the young people chanted from the Torah, led the set prayers in English and Hebrew, and presented divrei Torah to the community according to a formulaic outline. Then, after one of the students wound down his presentation describing his mitzvah project and expressing words of thanks to parents, siblings, guests, teachers, and clergy, he appeared to finish his speech. I waited for the requisite, “Shabbat Shalom,” and thumbed through the prayerbook to locate the concluding prayers of the service. Pausing, the bar mitzvah boy looked up from his typed words and radiated an impish smile. He gazed at the congregation, pointed both index fingers toward the heavens, and finished his speech with a loud exhortation, “Bless up!”
I had never heard of that particular expression before that moment. It reminded me of something a professional athlete might intone in preparation for a big game. Since that day, I’ve thought about the phrase more than a few times. Did the bar mitzvah boy mean we should bless God, who dwells up on high? Perhaps the expression means that it’s time to make a blessing and be grateful for the gifts we have that we are taking out of God’s realm and drawing into our own spheres. Maybe he thought he was being cool and funny by calling the congregation to prayer with slang in the midst of a formal service?
With the imminent arrival of Chanukah, this young man’s expression has re-entered my consciousness. Reviewing one of the famous disagreements between the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai (Talmud, Shabbat 21b:5-6), we recall that on Chanukah, we add an additional light for each night of the festival, as instructed by Hillel. While the modest sage’s rival, Shammai, favored kindling a brilliant array of lights on the first night and then deducting a candle or light as each night passed, Hillel would kindle lights corresponding to the outgoing days. By crowning Hillel as the victor in this conflict of opinions, the Talmud has ruled that when we light a chanukiyah, we, too, are supposed to “bless up.”
Just two weeks ago, I shared a very slow-moving elevator with a 96-year-old man and his 94-year-old wife. I asked them how they were getting along, and the gentleman looked at me, shook his head with caution, and instructed, “Take my advice, don’t get old.” The couple shuffled off of the elevator and made their way together, as I processed the jarring conversation. This man who was almost a century old probably did not feel good, may have suffered profound personal losses of friends and family members who predeceased him, and could have been suffering from a number of ailments and worries. He looked ahead at his days and may have wondered if positive, joyful experiences awaited him. Like the darkening chanukiya of Shammai, this nonagenarian’s opinion about life and joy corresponded to the incoming days, and the lights dwindled for him.
Downcast, I reminisced about my grandmother, who passed away at almost 102 years old. She enthusiastically complained about her failing eyesight, mourned the parents, siblings, husband, and friends she had lost, and lamented the insults of aging. Yet, she retained her gratitude and her sense of humor, joking that the Malach Ha-Mavet had lost track of her because she had moved to an assisted living facility in Mason, Ohio. For the time being, she was tricking death by living in a town that sounded eerily similar to the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Meitim — dead ones, and so the Angel of Death had assumed he had already visited her. I learned from this grandmother and my other grandparents, as well, to ascribe to the school of Hillel, and focus on the light of the outgoing days.
The Talmud instructs us to elevate to a higher level and never to downgrade in matters of sanctity. May we internalize the lesson of Hillel and find increasing light and joy in the progression of time. May we find strength in our days, and may we all grow very old with vigor and goodness in a world of peace.
Oh, yeah, and to quote a very wise bar mitzvah student, remember this Chanukah to always “bless up!”
Rabbi Sharon Forman serves Westchester Reform Temple and was a contributor to CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality.